Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008: The Year in Film

As most readers of this site are well aware, two studio releases dominated film conversation in the U.S. this year: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (WB) and Andrew Stanton's WALL·E (Disney-Pixar). With each manifesting a clearly identifiable - and divergent - politics, Hollywood did its best to provide choice in its multiplexes. Yet the alternatives were not those so much of 2008, but retroactively 2000, with the Bush-era, go-it-alone-unpopularly allegory The Dark Knight pitted against the ecological-alarmism of Al Gore. And as with that election, the same result, in box office terms, resulted: The Dark Knight moved to two second all-time in unadjusted numbers, while its opponent surpassed the very respectable $200 million mark, without winning the crown. Aesthetically, for this writer at least, The Dark Knight was much better than expected, as it improved on Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006) by infusing its profoundly-visceral technique with a moral seriousness - and a real sense of living in the midst of terror - absent in Scorsese's nihilistic crime opus. (It also manages an equal somatic effect with far less gore.) WALL·E, on the other hand, suffered in comparison to Brad Bird's superior efforts of the past few years (namely, 2004's The Incredibles and 2007's Ratatouille), from a narratively-leaden final hour and the hypocracy of its anti-consummerism - as well as from its cheap jabs at the obese. None of this of course mattered for the film's appointment as the year's most critically-beloved work.

Not that WALL·E is entirely lacking in virtues: the film's famed first forty minutes are as good as everyone says. Where critical laurels truly seem misplaced (for this writer) is in the praise lavished on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York and Tarsem's The Fall (2006), my joint selections for the year's worst. With regard to the Kaufman, Synecdoche provided 2008's most unrelentingly bleak vision of the world, effectively extrapolating from the filmmaker's proxy's own unhappiness a world in which all suffer from this same despair. Clear point-of-view? Yes. Unbelievably myopic and staggeringly unpleasant self-portrait of extreme self-concern? Certainly. The Tarsem, on the other hand, manages a balance of cloying sentimentally and sadism, supported by, as Lisa K. Broad puts it, a film grammar that is the functional equivalent of a novel penned by an illiterate.

Now on to the not awful... heck, on to the very good. For Tativille's two authors, Anderson and Broad, the distinction of the best American narrative film of the year belongs to Michel Gondry's evidently-undervalued Be Kind Rewind (pictured). Improving on his strong The Science of Sleep (2006), Gondry once again pulls together the often antithetical spheres of the cinema and the visual arts in his relational aesthetic-inspired latest foray into videotape nostalgia. This wasn't the funniest of a handful of strong American comedies in 2008 (Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Role Models and Forgetting Sarah Marshall were all funnier individually; Adam McKay's Step Brothers had its moments, most of which made their way into the film's many trailers, though McKay's mise-en-scène was mind-numbingly lazy) but it was certainly the finest in many other respects.

Then again, Japan provided a number of challenges to Gondry on the comedy front: Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita), the purely funniest of the group, represent three rare instances of comic filmmaking that all touch on human transience and the institutions of its country of origin - which is to say, these were three remarkable works of art. Yet, none of the above could touch a fourth Japanese film of the past twelve months, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterpiece Tokyo Sonata, which like the former grouping dissects its nation's mythology and its present-day economic situation. Tokyo Sonata was Broad's choice for the film of the year and a very close second for Anderson.

My own choice for the film of the year - and Broad's #2 - was Lucrecia Martel's career-peak The Headless Woman (Argentina). For me, The Headless Woman proved the year's fullest inter-mixture of form and discourse, providing a genuine attempt to remake film language in the image of its material. It was the un-Diving Bell and Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel) in its achievement in providing a plausible platform for its protagonist's perceptual irregularity. In fact, from global reports, 2008 may well be a year defined ultimately by the Latin American cinema generally and Argentine film specifically.

But back to the local. Posted below are Lisa and my choices for the year's top ten, selected from our favorite New York and New Haven theatrical and festival screenings (with an additional unreleased picture from Northern Europe making the cut). Through the New Year, I will also link to our favorite colleagues' selections on various sister sites. Please check back in the coming days for these updates.

-Michael J. Anderson, 12/23/2008

Updated: A 'mini' year-end poll, comprised of tabulations of the above lists, is also available on Tativille affiliate Ten Best Films.

2008: Michael J. Anderson

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, 2007)
RR (James Benning, 2007)
Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)
Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, 2007)

Runners-up: Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky), Sparrow (Johnnie To), You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007).

Updated (3/15/09): My 2008 only list is now available here, with an English-language version here.

2008: Lisa K. Broad

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita)
The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky)
Sparrow (Johnnie To)
Redbelt (David Mamet)
You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)

Retrospective Favorites of 2008
The Daughter of the Samurai (Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami, 1937), Doomed Love (Manoel de Oliveira, 1978), L'Immortelle (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1963), Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisa Oshima, 1968), Tokyo Twilight (Yasujiro Ozu, 1957).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

New Film: Gran Torino

That Gran Torino represents actor-director Clint Eastwood's best work in four years should come as no surprise: after all, this is the septuagenarian hyphenate's first on-camera turn since his 2004 masterpiece Million Dollar Baby. Though Gran Torino perhaps does not deserve that film's well-earned 'best picture' and 'best director' statues, Eastwood's latest embodiment minimally merits a third 'lead actor' citation. Indeed, Gran Torino showcases Eastwood's latest 'Dirty Harry' incarnation in his scene-chewing best, very much in the supremely-entertaining Heartbreak Ridge (1986) mold. Perhaps the Academy will seek to reward Eastwood in the same lifetime-achievement fashion that it did Paul Newman in 1986? If so, Eastwood's award would coincide appropriately with what might stand as his final career summation.

Gran Torino locates Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in modern-day Highland Park/Detroit, amid a decaying urban-scape populated by gang members and first- and second-generation Hmong immigrants. And Kowalski: a Korean-war vet, widower and retired auto worker, whose semi-estranged sons have long moved on to the suburbs and foreign-model SUVs. Kowalski spends his days alone with his golden lab, drinking copious amounts of PBR, coughing up blood and grunting at the indignity of living among brown lawns and unkempt homesteads - and given less than the slightest justification, initiating an unending (and admirably varied) string of racist profanities.

Following the attempted theft of Walt's eponymous car and an encounter with Hmong gang-bangers on the neighbor's front lawn, Eastwood's character grudgingly integrates himself into the lives of his neighbors, laterally stopping African-American youths with a firearm from harassing daughter Sue (Ahney Her), while her "pussy" white boyfriend cowers on the side, and supervising brother Thao (Bee Vang) as he works of his debt. Walt is befriended by the plucky Sue and mentors the introverted Thao, even managing to find the latter employment on a construction sit, following an exceedingly funny set-up in which Polish-American Walt and his Italian-American barber teach Thao how to talk like a man; Gran Torino is one of the year's funniest films.

It is also one of the most harrowing. A subsequent, lawless defense of the hard-working Thao collaterally leads to the young man's wounding in a drive-by shooting and to Sue's brutal rape at the hands of her cousin's gang. Having thus prompted the violence, Walt settles on a course of action that ultimately leads to his character's Christic sacrifice, replete with a crucifix pose after performing a sacrificial gesture. (Eastwood belies his hostility toward the Christian faith with his supreme act of brotherly love.) At this moment, as likewise in the film's commencing expository dialogue, Eastwood's direction demonstrates a noticeably heavy hand nonetheless that does Gran Torino few favors. As with his weaker offerings of the past three years - namely, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Changeling (2008) - Eastwood's cinema does drift toward the tendency of producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard to overtly-literalize character psychology. Gran Torino is not entirely beyond their negative influence.

Nonetheless, this is an Eastwood film to its core, calling his famed character-construction to account for the vigilantism that manifests itself both locally and across a forty-year corpus. Here, the solution of sacrifice becomes the fated consequence of a life's work, unavoidable as it is imperative within the film's narrative logic. Speaking of, revenge is shown less to be immoral in Gran Torino (as it is represented in the similarly-revisionist Mystic River, 2003) than tactically-ineffective. Either way, the vigilantism of Dirty Harry (1971) et al. continues to reveal unintended consequences. Eastwood extends his auto-critique.

He also demonstrates a continued engagement with the present, which in the case of Gran Torino finds a form in his lament over white-flight and in a symbolic passing-of-the-torch to an immigrant next generation. With respect to the latter, Eastwood seems to favor assimilation in contrast to another 2008 flash point, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, which assumes a more politically-expedient multi-culturalist perspective. Of course, none of the above makes Gran Torino particularly timely, which is unusual for the director of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Heartbreak Ridge, A Perfect World (1993), Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). In these films, Eastwood successively summons the spirit of post-Watergate distrust in institutions, Reagan-era patriotism, late Bush/early Clinton-era anxieties over single-motherhood, post-9/11 discourses of violent response, Terry Schiavo and Bush II-period wartime equivocations. However important in reality, gangland violence's current under-reporting in the media makes Gran Torino feel behind its time. Yet, in uncharacteristically extricating himself from topicality, Eastwood has again renewed his cinema.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Feliz aniversário, Manoel!

Manoel de Oliveira, one of the true giants of world cinema and a strong contender for the greatest of all Portuguese artists (in any medium), turns one-hundred today. It has been reported that Oliveira will spend the centennial of his birth on the set of his latest production, Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loira. Nothing could be more appropriate certainly, nor anything quite so gratifying for those admirers of Oliveira, who, much like myself, have long entertained this scenario. After all, does not a filmmaker who has succeeded in making more than one film per year throughout his nineties deserve to make history as the first active 100 year-old auteur?* That his primary subject has long been an ironized assessment of Europe's waning civilization - from the standpoint of an inheritor of its aristocratic high culture - makes his unparalleled time as a working artist all the more poetic. For those of us in the cinema, today belongs to one of our greatest masters.

For those who are less familiar with the director, let me direct you to a series of posts (linked to below) that I have dedicated to Oliveira during my three-and-a-half years writing for this site. The fact that I have written on the Portuguese filmmaker more than any other individual is I suppose the greatest testament I could offer to the artist's continued vitality; his films have inspired me to make my thoughts public like none other. Feliz aniversário, Manoel!

Full-length reviews and essays available at Tativille: Doomed Love (1978), Francisca (1981), No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990), Magic Mirror (2005), Belle Toujours (2006).

Capsule pieces (for my annual 'top ten' lists) available at Ten Best Films: I'm Going Home (2001), The Uncertainty Principle (2003), A Talking Picture (2003).

* Leni Riefenstahl's Impressions Underwater (2002) was released to commemorate the then-living German filmmaker's 100th birthday. Riefenstahl, however, shot the documentary film while still in her nineties.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

New Film: Fengming: A Chinese Memoir

Wang Bing's non-fiction Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (He Fengming, 2007) establishes a new twenty-first century standard for conceptual minimalism: a single frontal camera set-up for most of its 186-minute duration, occasionally alternating between a default medium-length composition and less ubiquitous medium close-up framings. In front of the documentarian's mini-DV camera, He Fengming (pictured), in a near endless stream of expertly-narrated anecdotes, recounts her experiences as the victim of Mao Zedong's Anti-Rightist purge and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Wang uses neither archival footage nor photographs to illustrate Fengming's personal history, limiting his film instead to his subject's on-camera act of recollection. Fengming is more than He's opportunity to tell her story, it is her chance to speak.

Fengming's identification with anti-Maoist factions began with her husband's publication of an article warning against the dangers of bureaucratic excesses. In spite of the fact that both He and her husband were avowedly socialist in their politics, and that Fengming offered no anti-governmental statement either publicly or privately, the PRC successively labeled each as "rightist," leading to their submission to "struggle sessions" in which their friends and colleagues were called upon to offer denunciations. With their guilt thereby established, each was reassigned to labor camps - Fengming with a substantial reduction in her pay grade and change of vocations, and her husband with a loss of employment. Fengming and her husband - whose love story is among this year's most luminous - were thus among the victims of the first Anti-Rightist movement, which commenced in 1957, and would lead to the internment of hundreds of thousands of persons, 99.8% of which were exonerated after Mao's death.

Fengming and her husband's assignments occurred during the early stages of the Greap Leap Forward (1958-1961) in which Mao's disasterous agricultural policies lead to the starvation of 30,000,000. Miraculously, Fengming was somehow able to escape this fate, unlike so many in the camps - she and her comrades were forced to eat stolen cotton seeds - and was eventually cleared of the Rightist tag in the early 1960s. With the Cultural Revolution, however, Fengming was again identified as a Rightist and was accordingly sent to live with an extremely poor country family. As Fengming notes, theirs was a dirt-walled house without rafters or ceiling panels. (Cinematic comparisons to the family in Yellow Earth [Chen Kaige, 1984] seem apt.) Yet, as poor as they were, Fengming's newest hosts showed a great deal of compasion, as did those at the Dry Gulch farm, who housed He during her visit.

Speaking of, the Dry Gulch anecdotes offers two of the year's most vivid images: a cave filled with the discarded blankets of the deceased, and, thirty years later, the mounds and faded grave-markers of a make-shift cemetery. Fengming: A Chinese Memoir in this respect is a supremely visual work, even as Wang's camera does not stray from the film's eponymous subject. However, it is an imagery generated not by potentially-problematic reproductions (given the film's inherent melodrama, an entertainment in suffering might entail) but through He's expert storytelling, shading and foreshadowing - a perfect, similarly visual moment is her description of a possibly wolf-filled winter landscape - concealing and repeating for clarity. Fengming brings her unspeakable world back into existence.

Of course, Fengming put her narrational facility to use in an earlier written memoir on the same subject, thereby prompting the question of why a film version. The answer, it would seem, is present in the camera's ubiquitous subject: Fengming's face and more generally, her corporeality. Wang's film offers its spectator the experience of this woman's presence, her imminence at the time of Fengming's filming. Once more, we do not simply have the telling of a story, but the body (and spirit) of the woman who suffered, before our eyes, letting her memories roll of her tongue in near real-time.

Wang emphasizes this embodiment in a prefatory passage and coda that both film He in her everyday environs. In the former, we see her walking to her apartment house over the surrounding icy streets, and in the latter, sitting on her couch watching television and answering a phone call (from another survivor of the camps). She is not the abstract author of her written memoirs, but a physical member of the world we share. Fengming is also representative of the 550,000 denounced rightists; this again is a 'Chinese' memoir.

Ultimately, a story like Fengming's needs no aesthetic justification. Her's is an enormously vital story in any society - and no less in liberal ones like our own. Fengming's life is a reminder, if any is necessary, that we must always resist the suppression of opposing points of view, no matter to what end. Nonetheless, Wang's film does more than instruct, it does more than give voice to its' extraordinary subject, which is certainly all that we might ask of a work of Fengming's importance: Wang's latest provides an ontological justification for its (otherwise redundant) celluloid representation.

I would like to thank Lisa K. Broad for her many insights included above. I wish to dedicate this piece to the memory of Andre Bazin, whose life - and the fiftieth anniversary of whose death - has been celebrated this weekend at a Yale University conference organized by Dudley Andrew.